Now is the Moment to Save Our Postal Commons
In 21st century late capitalism, defending the commons means defending public spaces and public services that are irreducible to mere profit-value. There are few better examples of common spaces than conduits of public and private communication. A conscious, directed effort to save postal services in the United States and Canada should be a priority of the movement for economic democracy.
For some, the postal service has become an ideological punching bag, proof that “government programs” don’t work and that the state inevitably bureaucratizes services better left to the private sector. In the case of the postal service, this narrative lacks a critical element: fidelity to truth.
As an independent agency under the umbrella of the federal government, the United States Postal Service receives little-to-no government funding; it pays for itself through sales of its stamps and services, and is only in financial trouble because of a vindictive, unfair law that forces it to fund its pensions seventy-five years into the future. As Jim Hightower points out, the postal service hasn’t taken a penny from taxpayers since 1971.
Whatever the reasons for the public’s conception of the postal service as an institution weighted down by socialistic bureaucracy, current events suggest otherwise. Over the 2013 holiday season, it was a private carrier, United Parcel Service, which collapsed under the weight of demand and inefficiency. When it happened, UPS’s spokespersons and the usual gang of bourgeois media shifted into high gear in defense of the corporatist paradigm. At least one retail spokesperson said consumers shared the blame; other fluffy critics pinned the debacle on consumerism itself.
But compared to private carrier UPS, the U.S. Postal Service performed just fine over the holidays. By itself, it’s a win for the Post Office and an anecdote refuting the dominant privatization narrative. Government-run services often outperform private ones, and citing that evidence is important.
Yet something even bigger is at stake in the discussion about post offices. Because postal services owned by the people are part of the commons, rather than simply an effort to increase efficiency and prosperity, the attack on public postal utilities amounts to an attack on the commons itself—part of the ruling classes’ ongoing effort to privatize and profitize every sphere of social life.
The Postal Commons
For a long time, postal services in the United States and Canada epitomized the commons. They provided a center for neighborhoods and communities. They facilitated short- and long-distance communication. And people even banked there. From 1910 to 1967, the U.S. Postal Savings System served millions of customers, peaking in 1947 at nearly $3.4 billion in deposits.
And it wasn’t only America. Ethan Cox reports that “Canada had a postal bank for over 100 years, which was scrapped under pressure from the [private] banking lobby in 1968.” The systems largely paid for themselves, and postal carriers were both highly-respected public servants and members of powerful labor unions.
During the Great Depression, beautiful post offices were constructed in the United States featuring splendid architecture and fine art. Post offices were markers of community.
Corporate capitalism, however, cannot tolerate examples of public success. Alongside attacks on other public institutions, lobbyists began attacking the postal service, incredulous that their overlords weren’t making a profit from people’s correspondence. Pushed by the administration of George W. Bush in 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, a law with no antecedent reason and no empirical justification, which required the USPS to pre-pay the healthcare benefits of all current employees and employees who will retire in the next 75 years.
As Jim Hightower notes, “no other agency and no corporation has to do this.” The absurd mandate costs USPS $5.5 billion-per-year. That, and not some imagined socialist inefficiency, is the true source of economic woes at the post office, and both conservative and liberal pundits will use those woes to justify shutting the service down—even though, as evidenced last Christmas, the USPS routinely out-performs private services and receives no taxpayer money to do so.
Again, this is not a crisis limited to the U.S. The Canadian postal system has also come under attack. Canada Post is ending home delivery in urban areas and laying off employees. The move comes as a result of questionable allegations of declining letter volume.
Playing postal politics
But adding to the USPS’s woes is a graft scheme being engineered by the spouse of one of America’s most powerful senators. Richard Blum, the husband of Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairs Coldwell Banker Richard Ellis, or CBRE, a company that brokers the sale of USPS facilities. Through CBRE—a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Los Angeles that bills itself as “the world’s largest commercial real estate services and investment firm”—Blum and his senator wife along with their business friends have benefited directly from legislation undermining the viability of the post office.
Senator Feinstein has lobbied both the FDIC and the Postal Service on behalf of her husband’s company. The senator has repeatedly obtained updates on which facilities were slated to be sold by her husband’s company—even as those sites were under review by her husband’s company. The deal between the post office and Blum’s company is exclusive.
Gray Brechin, founder and project scholar of the Living New Deal Project at UC Berkeley, says of the ransacking of postal property: “Towns and cities throughout our entire country are losing their historic post offices and often the New Deal artworks designed for them. The giant real estate company CBRE advises the USPS on what post offices to sell and then profits by representing both the seller and buyer.”
A June audit by the Office of Inspector General raised conflict of interest concerns and noted “poor oversight” of the CBRE contract. CBRE represents both buyers of postal properties (including Goldman Sachs) and the seller: the post office itself. In a recent conversation I had with Brechin, he called the selling off of postal property the “Teapot Dome scandal of our time.”
In that scandal, President Warren Harding’s Secretary of the Interior was convicted of accepting bribes from powerful people to whom he had leased valuable public lands. “Of course,” Brechin pointed out to me, “the U.S. at that time had an active and competitive press willing to cover the investigation into the scandal.”
Ralph Nader recently wrote to Feinstein concerning CBRE-brokered sales, citing journalist Richard Byrne’s investigation into the sales, and pointing out that 20 percent of the postal real estate has been sold to CBRE’s own clients and business partners. The Berkeley-based group National Post Office Collaborate is one of many groups “fighting the sale of our property and the dismantling of the USPS,” according to Brechin.
But such private groups need the help of elected officials to stop the pillaging. What is at stake, beyond the value of public postal services, is the preservation of the commons and its protection from “enclosure” by private interests. In “The Parallel Economy of the Commons,” Jonathan Rowe writes:
“Enclosure is the process by which a commons is taken for private use and gain. It has a long history. War and conquest excepted, the original enclosures in Anglo-American history largely were the work of the British Parliament, which parceled out the common lands to private owners, often with inadequate compensation—if any—for the commoners whose rights and subsistence were taken in the process.”
Rowe lists as examples of enclosure the “parceling out of the broadcast airwaves to private corporations.” Just as the sky belongs to everyone, he argues, public communication also belongs to everyone—which is why post offices have come to epitomize communities in such a powerful way.
The stakes are not merely philosophical. The postal service has databases for disaster relief and civil emergency purposes, making it a designated deliverer of medicines in public health emergencies. Privatizing postal delivery means privatizing or, if corporate capitalism deems them unprofitable, completely eliminating such services.
Jim Hightower calls the USPS “an unmatched bargain, a civic treasure, a genuine public good that links all people and communities into one nation. Myriad studies have produced conclusions suggesting that post offices, and a government-mediated postal system, establish a “commons,” a system of community spaces that provide for the public good and are irreducible to private profits. These spaces include an infrastructure to respond to national emergencies and re-establish communications when disasters strike; money transfer services for those without access to banks; low-cost delivery of goods to rural areas (something private carriers refuse to provide at reasonable cost); and possibly even increased public safety and community security.
In April 2012, a report estimated that the closing of rural post offices would result in economic losses five times greater than any money saved by the closings, and incur environmental damage as a result of people having to drive to post offices far away. Not only that, “post offices are often the social hubs of smaller communities and shuttering them has strong negative implications for social capital (chances for neighbors to see one another, renew ties, share stories, and help each other out).”
So what solutions should we demand? First, in the United States, the Postal Accountability Act should be repealed and benefit-funding requirements restored to standards comparable to other public utilities. American Postal Workers Union spokesperson Sally Davidow says eliminating the funding requirement would eliminate the USPS financial crisis altogether. She also says package volume is up at the post office, which will surprise critics who are stuck in the privatization narrative.
Peter DeFazio and Bernie Sanders have sponsored bills to prevent closures or curtailment of postal services, and facilitate new opportunities for the post office. Along with making funding requirements fair for the Postal Service, the practice of auctioning off postal buildings and art should end immediately. The public is not benefiting from these sales; instead, private interests, connected to elected officials, are grabbing up valuable pieces of the public good.
Beyond that, both Canada and the United States can restore postal banking as a means of increasing services to constituent communities, and providing a valuable mechanism to fully fund all postal endeavors. As Ethan Cox points out, postal banks, wherever they have been, have made “huge profits, charge low fees and improve accessibility . . . The largest bank in the world is Japan’s Post Bank.”
Public banking advocate Ellen Brown has also called for a postal savings bank, pointing out that, like the postal service itself, such a bank wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. The APWU’s Davidow also lists banking as a way to increase postal revenue. The National Association of Letter Carriers reports that one out of four people don’t have access to a bank and are forced to use pre-paid debit cards, check cashing services and payday loans—all sapping their money away from basic services that could be provided by publicly-owned banks, facilitated by post offices.
The solution would also work in Canada. As David Bush recently wrote: “The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has long advocated for the expansion of postal services into areas such as banking. This is what happened in countries such as Italy, France and New Zealand. Offering banking services would allow people in smaller communities to access banking services in otherwise unserviced communities. Also, it could create more jobs.” And finally, a postal bank needn’t confine itself to consumer banking. The National Association of Letter Carriers also suggests a national infrastructure bank—a development bank run through the postal service, issuing bonds, backing public-private partnerships, and guaranteeing “long-term low-interest loans to states and investment groups willing to rebuild.”
We may never convince privatizers and corporatists that public services are desirable. But for those sitting on the fence, it’s important to provide the facts about postal services: they are self-funded, they provide more consistent and less expensive services than private carriers, and above all they belong to us.
The answer to inefficiency, heavy-handedness and abuse of power is more democracy, transparency and accountability—not less of it. Those who claim private corporations are more accountable than public entities ignore the ways private corporations abuse the democratic process with impunity. Checks and balances over public entities do not have analogies in the private sector, whose patrons fight every proposed regulation tooth and nail.
In 21st century late capitalism, defending the commons means defending public spaces and public services that are irreducible to mere profit-value. There are few better examples of common spaces than conduits of public and private communication. A conscious, directed effort to save postal services in the United States and Canada should be a priority of the movement for economic democracy. After all, “communication” and “commons” have a common origin expressed in the Latin word comm_nic_re, meaning “to share.”
—Portside, January 20, 2014